Category Archives: Shakespeare’s Histories

Henry VI Part I, Act 3: Enter King Henry

It takes until the third act for this play’s namesake to make his first appearance in it. Those who have been caught in the middle of family squabbles turned venomous will likely have the most empathy for Henry VI. The enmity between his uncle and great-uncle is spreading beyond them among the people and erupting into violence. When swords and other customary weapons are taken away from them, Gloucester’s supporters pick up rocks and use them as effective weapons instead.  Henry VI’s first lines of the play are a plea for conciliation:

Uncles of Gloucester and of Winchester, The special watchmen of our English weal, I would prevail, if prayers might prevail, To join your hearts in love and amity.

His success in this is akin to most attempts of this sort when an authority figure pressures fighting factions into handshakes: there may be an outward sign of conciliation, but no inner substance to it. It will not last.

But Henry’s reasons and fears for trying to unite them in Act 3, Scene 1 are sound:

O what a scandal is it to our crown, That two such noble peers as ye should jar! Believe me, lords, my tender years can tell Civil dissension is a viperous worm That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.

Human nature being what it is, it can take real strength of purpose and character not to succumb to this in government, communities, and families. We hope for more from our leaders. Children hope for more from their parents. Henry is no exception:

Fie, uncle Beaufort! I have heard you preach That malice was a great and grievous sin: And will not you maintain the thing you teach, But prove a chief offender in the same?

As is typically Shakespeare’s way, Winchester- a villain- makes the outward motions of obedience but will not leave the stage before asserting to himself and the audience that, “I intend it not.”

He is one of several selfish and proud men who will, as Henry VI’s other living great-uncle, the Duke of Exeter foretells, bring about ruin for England and King Henry:

This late dissension grown betwixt the peers Burns under feigned ashes of forged love, And will at last break out into a flame: as festered members rot but by degree, Till bones and flesh and sinews fall away, So will this base and envious discord breed. And now I fear that fatal prophecy Which, in the time of Henry named the Fifth, Was in the mouth of every sucking babe: That Henry born at Monmouth (Henry V) should win all and Henry born at Windsor (Henry VI) lose all:

I find it interesting that Exeter talks about rot and ruin coming about by degrees inside the individual members involved. It is so. We chart our course and live our lives through small habits and decisions that move us towards happinesses and unhappinesses by degrees. We may not notice the individual shifts- just like in temperature- until things get uncomfortable for us, but those changes by degrees are constantly happening. It’s something worth looking for in our lives. It’s something worth working on in us.


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Henry VI Part I, Act 2: Two Quotes

History told by the losing side sometimes leads to… exaggeration, slanders, and out-and-out lies. In Henry VI Part I, Act 2,  the retaking of Orleans in Scene 1, the triumph of Talbot over the French Countess who sought to entrap him in Scene 3, and Richard Plantagenet’s meeting with Mortimer in Scene 5  are all, according to Isaac Asimov in Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, wishful thinking and total fabrication.

There is evidence and plenty of debate that Henry VI was the collaborative work of several authors, only one of whom was Shakespeare. In the introduction to Henry VI  in the version edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen in cooperation with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the editors mention that two of the strongest scenes of the play (one of which is Act 2, Scene 4) are the ones computer tests show to be all Shakespeare.

It is commonly believed that Parts II and III of Henry VI  were written by Shakespeare before Part I. Rasmussen and Bate suggest that Henry VI Part I was the 16th century equivalent of a “prequel”.  As such, Act 2, Scene 4 is of particular importance. It is one of the few scenes in Henry VI Part I which lead directly into the action of Parts II and III. From a continuity perspective, if you read only one scene in this play, this should probably be the one.

However, from an I-can-relate-to-that-quote perspective, my favorite lines of Act 2 come from Scene 2.

When Talbot asks his friends to accompany him for (what appears to be) a social invitation to the Countess’s residence, the Duke of Bedford replies:

“No, truly, ’tis more than manners will: And I have heard it said, unbidden guests Are often welcomest when they are gone.”

This quote struck me in particular, most likely, because I read it near the time when an unbidden guest invited more than two dozen additional unbidden guests to my home without any notice. It was a taxing experience.

This is one reason why I like Shakespeare: in some way on some level, he has addressed practically everything I have ever thought or felt- but coming from his pen it tastes less bitter when I speak it. It helps me feel understood and validated, but not entitled necessarily to go and do likewise. It’s a safe and cathartic way, in other words, to get the difficult out of my system without harming someone else. These particular lines may or may not be Shakespeare, but they are my favorite from the play thus far. My thanks to whoever wrote them.

As for Scene 4, roses were not used to differentiate political alliances between the houses of York (White) and Lancaster (Red) in the actual time period the events took place. In fact, according to Isaac Asimov, the red rose became associated with the wars only after they had concluded, as a contrast to the white rose which the Yorks used during the wars . The roses, however, were firmly entwined with the legend of the time, and as such, effectively begin the story of the Wars of the Roses here.

As Somerset and Richard Plantagenet disagree regarding who has highest claim to the throne- Richard Plantagenet or Henry VI- they try to draw others to their sides. In a time when such talk could be considered treason and worthy of death, few are willing to speak outright so Richard suggests that those who support him should pluck a white rose as a sign of their allegiance to him instead. Somerset plucks red.  Near the end of this scene, Warwick, who was the tutor of Henry VI by the will of Henry V in real life and who brought young Henry VI to France when he (Warwick) supervised the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, sides with York and says in part:

“Meantime, in signal of my love to thee, Against proud Somerset and William Pole, Will I upon thy party wear this rose. And here I prophesy: this brawl today, Grown to this faction in the Temple garden, Shall send, between the red rose and the white, A thousand souls to death and deadly night.”

This quote presages one of the most moving scenes regarding the horrors of civil war that I have ever read or seen: Act 2, Scene 5 of Henry VI Part III. It starts here, in Act 2, Scene 4 of Henry VI Part I.

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Henry VI Part I, Act 1

Henry VI Part I opens on Henry V’s funeral, with those who knew and worked with him in various degrees of mourning. A series of messengers gives them ever more reasons to mourn as news comes of loss after loss of English control over various cities throughout France. In real life, these losses occurred over much longer periods of time and later than is depicted here. If you are looking for authoritative history of these events, look elsewhere. If you are looking for a situation frustratingly common within armies, cabinet war rooms, and among allies in every war I’ve ever studied, don’t shoot the first messenger in Henry VI, listen to him:

Exeter: How were they lost? What treachery was used?

First Messenger: No treachery, but want of men and money.

Amongst the soldiers this is mutter-ed:

That here you maintain several factions,

And whilst a field should be dispatched and fought,

You are disputing of your generals.

One would have lingering wars with little cost:

Another would fly swift, but wanteth wings:

A third thinks, without expense at all,

By guileful fair words peace may be obtained.

Awake, awake, English nobility!

                                             Henry VI Part I, Act 1 Scene 1

Those in authority are warned and apprised within the first 100 lines of the play of what the majority of the men in their command have already surmised: factions within the government are leading to greater death and suffering among the common people. It would be different if those in authority were basing their arguments on what they believe is best and right, but it is clear from the beginning that vengeance and pride are driving the better part of their actions and decisions.

Not every man in the government is a villain, but the audience is quickly acquainted with a dangerously ambitious one as Act 1 Scene 1 ends. The Bishop of Winchester, uncle of the late king, is left onstage as all the men around him exit to attend to their various responsibilities. “But long I will not be Jack-out-of-office (an unscrupulous man dismissed from his position),” he informs us. “The king (Winchester’s great-nephew, young Henry VI) from Eltham (a palace) I intend to steal And sit at chiefest stern of public weal (take control of the government).”

Winchester’s actions nearly lead to bloodshed among Englishmen from the beginning of Scene III. Deaths are averted only by the direct intervention of the mayor of the Tower of London who calls two of Henry VI’s uncles out for their behavior and tells them to knock it off. Winchester leaves the scene with a warning and a threat to his half-nephew, the Duke of Gloucester: “Abominable Gloucester, guard thy head, For I intend to have it ere long.” The dude’s not kidding, and he doesn’t mean it in the rough-house headlock sense, but in the screaming Queen of Hearts “Off with your head!” one. (Shakespearically and historically, it’s pretty dangerous to be a royal.)

In other Act I news, you meet Joan of Arc and Lord Talbot in their Shakespearean form: both of them arrogant and both, by the end of Act I, with a reputation for evincing fear from the hearts of the people on the opposing side of them, making them cower and run.

This is one of the more violent of Shakespeare’s plays and he has no intention of sparing you from the horrors of warfare- it’s literally written into the lines that Talbot speaks as he strives to comfort his dying friend, the Earl of Salisbury. I am not especially fond of Lord Talbot, but several of his lines can be quite moving in their anguish. In the end of Scene 5 we see him in the depths of his misery. By now he has lost a dear friend, he has fought below his personal expectations while in combat with Joan of Arc, and he has seen his men flee and retreat. He feels what many of us would feel in his place, if not expressing those feelings exactly as we might:

“My thoughts are whirl-ed like a potter’s wheel: I know not where I am, nor what I do… retire into your trenches: You all consented unto Salisbury’s death, For none would strike a stroke in his revenge. Pucelle (Joan of Arc) is entered into Orleans, In spite of us or aught that we could do. O would I were to die with Salisbury!”

As Act I comes to a close, the French rejoice and the Dauphin Charles makes effusive promises to Joan for her service that he will not keep. (Personally I don’t consider that a spoiler, but if you are unfamiliar with the story of Joan of Arc- oops.) One thing the Dauphin says will be true- Joan does become France’s saint- with a better reputation than is afforded her in Henry VI Part I.

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Henry VI Introduction

The Wars of the Roses, does that mean anything to you?

It certainly didn’t to me until recently, when I started to become familiar with Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy that leads into his Richard III. As an American I probably wouldn’t have encountered it at all if I hadn’t decided to read all of Shakespeare’s plays aloud to myself, fairly close to the order he wrote them in. I say fairly close because no one living knows with certainty the order in which he wrote them. After looking at several chronologies of the plays I decided to strike out on my own and read them in a sequence that was fairly chronological and made sense to me.

Henry VI Part I  is probably not Shakespeare’s first play, but Henry VI Parts II and III are consistently listed among his earliest works, so my personal quest through the plays begins here. Many see Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I as a collaborative work, and an inferior one at that. I’ve read comments of contempt regarding this play, some of whose writers cannot believe that a genius of Shakespeare’s caliber could write as poorly or inaccurately as he does in this play.

A few thoughts here: Even in Shakespeare’s later plays there are passages that don’t scream genius to me. I have a feeling that if lines from plays written at that time period by other playwrights were set alongside random excerpts of his less familiar passages that most people, perhaps even some scholars, would struggle to rightly identify who was responsible for each. Is this a terrible, horrible thing? No.

Hopefully you grow as a writer as you write (one of the main reasons that I’m trying to read Shakespeare’s works in roughly the same order in which he wrote them, is to notice those changes and development). In the beginning it isn’t uncommon to be a bad imitation of a writer you’ve been exposed to or admire, or to wittingly or unwittingly incorporate some of another’s work and style into your own. Shakespeare borrowed most of his plots and stories, even in his later works. Why should this surprise us? Think of how many movies are adaptations of books, plays, fairytales, myths, etc. Do we howl over this? Sometimes- particularly when it doesn’t come off well- but when it does, you get Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility via Emma Thompson (which- prepare to be horrified- I prefer to the original book), or other movie gems like The Sound of Music (which is not particularly historically accurate) and It’s a Wonderful Life (which began its life as a short story that I found a bit… underwhelming but that Frank Capra saw the vein of gold in and transformed it into a classic).

As human beings not everything we attempt will be at the same level or achieve the same level of success or critical acclaim. Sometimes this is due to the critics and the audience and where they are at personally when they encounter our work, sometimes this is due to us.

Shakespeare wrote from the perspective of many characters from many different circumstances and walks of life. If his servants sounded erudite the audience would see them as pretentious or posing, and wouldn’t believe them. The fact that Shakespeare’s villains often have some of the best lines is actually consistent with real life in my experience. If you can talk and present yourself well, you can often get away with things, at least for awhile, that would have jailed or ostracized someone with less charisma or eloquence. Honesty and sincerity don’t necessarily lend themselves to suave interactions either publicly or privately. This, in part, is one of Henry VI’s difficulties, not so much in Henry VI Part I, which could rightly be named after Joan of Arc or Lord Talbot instead because these two actually dominate this part of the story, but later on when the Wars of the Roses begin.

Knowing the history of the Wars of the Roses will help in understanding Henry VI Parts I, II, and III to a degree, but you will likely still be confused by the sheer number of men who are referred to by several names and who switch allegiances throughout the trilogy. My advice? See the plays before reading them if you can. If a character surprises or confuses you, congratulations! You are probably experiencing a portion of the many frustrations and agonies that Henry VI himself did.

Keep in mind that Shakespeare wasn’t crafting a documentary with these plays. There are inaccuracies EVERYWHERE, especially in Part I. Some of them are due to prejudices of the time. There was a great deal of anti-Catholic and anti-French feeling in Shakespeare’s day (something still evident in our own) that distorted how the French were portrayed in this play, especially when it came to Joan of Arc. Other inaccuracies were used by Shakespeare to condense a large span of time into the confines of what a body could stand in a theatre setting and/or for dramatic effect. If you are interested in the details of this, Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare by Isaac Asimov (yes, the noted science fiction writer) is a helpful resource.

So if you’re not English, a fan of Shakespeare, the time period, or the theatre, why read Henry VI- especially when it is drawn out over the span of three (!) full length plays? Because what happens in Henry VI still happens now- ALL THE TIME. Take out the massive bloodshed aspect of them (or in some cases, with some countries, don’t)  and you will see vividly the attitudes and actions that cripple governments and hurt the general population no matter who is in power, to this day. This set of plays shows how people get caught up and swept along by ambitious people vying for power. In this set of plays I saw World War II Germany, the Middle East, the United States presidency, courts, and congress. It’s all there,  and so much of it is the same, but because it’s the Wars of the Roses we see it at a distance that helps us to be more objective and open to it, that aids us in helping to see our situation in a different, and possibly more enlightened, way.

Henry VI may or may not be great Shakespeare but if we allow it to, it still has the power to touch and engage us.

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